Lesson 10: Night Flight

Not so much a lesson, as an experience and a chance to just go flying and put a lot of what I’ve learnt to-date into practice (but at night!).

In the UK the night rating requires 5 hours of night flying and is dependant on a lot of the skills which essentially rule out doing it in parallel with a PPL.  However, where I fly the window to go flying at night exists from approx. first week of November to early in the new year.   So if I wanted to go flying at night, it was now or wait a year…..

Double checking with the aero club, the answer came back that I was good to go for at least the first lesson of the course (put an instructor in the right hand seat and the general rule of thumb is you can go an experience pretty much whatever – to the limits of your ability).

I’d flown only once with the instructor who’d be taking me up and to be honest it was my overall worst lesson (very windy and my flying was a bit all over the place in terms of accuracy), time to see if I’d improved any….

Briefing & Checkout

The briefing is best summed up like this:

The world will be divided up into two categories:   Very bright areas of light and Very Dark bits….. You won’t be able to see anything on the ground either way.    Should the engine fail, aim for a dark bit, you’ll have no idea if anything is there until around 100ft – turn the landing light on, if you don’t like what you see, turn the landing light off again!

It sounds like a joke, but it’s deadly serious the one thing that my instructor repeated was that night flying was dangerous.    The most dangerous phase of flying is taking off and all the way up to 1000ft – at this airport you have a few fields ahead that give you options, but at night you can’t see any of them……..if the engine fails on take off, it’ll be “best guess” approach for a field and a lot of praying!

All that said, the very last thing I am is scared of flying (day, night or upside down).   So I was far more excited about getting to go flying at night then I was worried about anything going wrong.

My instructor did the checkout of the plane, I suspect he wanted to be just as sure it was in top form and the plane was brimmed to the top with fuel (~20 gallons in each tank…….so about 4 hours of flying time).

Checklists at night

Escapism at its best, if you’ve ever imagined what it must have been like during world war 2 – then being in a cramped light aircraft with a red filtered torch searching for where you were on the checklist, switches & gauges brings the sensation truly home……. just going through the checks at night with a red filtered torch in hand was a lot of fun, I could have got the plane going, shut it down and I’d have still walked away smiling.

Take-Off and Climb

The radio calls were smooth and taxing gave the first ‘night phenomenon’, at night you’ll over speed on taxi if you keep looking forwards.  The tendency is to feel like you’re going quite slow (but turn your head left/right and you soon realise you’ve got more power on then you thought!).

My instructor did the take off and climb, for reasons highlighted above.

Calm Skies and Amazing Views

From 1000ft I was handed the controls and did a turning climb left up to 2,500ft.

There was very little wind and other than the beginnings of some pretty light haze/fog visibility was excellent at way beyond 10km.

I flew towards Newmarket, you know your ground speed is ~115mph, but it still seems to always amaze me how blisteringly fast you can cover distance in a light aircraft doing this speed (the reasons are obvious:  It’s direct point to point rather than following any roads and you’re outpacing even those who dare risk prosecution and drive beyond 100mph on the roads). This speed coupled with the fact that you can see 30-40 miles ahead of your position means that places are insight long before you reach them.

Everything my instructor had said on the ground was true.

The world was now very bright areas of light (towns/cities), or total black – perhaps it was a field, or perhaps there’s a house there and they’ve gone out for the night……if the engine cut out at this altitude, we’d have 5 minutes of gliding before we found out.

The views were still amazing though, you could watch major roads and see a sea of cars suddenly decide to start braking.

We turned and flew directly over Newmarket, now heading towards Bar Hill, keeping the A14 on my left (as per rules of the air for flying following a major feature).

There is a large Tesco (Superstore) at Bar Hill, from 2,500ft the one feature on the ground I could make out easily was its brightly lit sign.

Flying in a Blackout.

We were flying G-SHWK, it’s the only plane in the club that has a working autopilot (turned off) and a built in full colour display GPS (turned ON).   This made flying at night very simple, as knowing where we were was no problem at all……..but I knew in myself that if I turned that off, I’d be lost pretty damn quick.

As we reached Huntington, I turned the plane around an my instructor turned the GPS display OFF.   Now I had the A14 to follow and that was it, deviate from this major feature and very quickly I suspect I wouldn’t know one bright area of light from another (all villages look pretty similar at night).

Going back to my escapism of how it might have been for world war 2 bomber pilots, I was left thinking “How on earth did they ever find anything!”  (Now statistically you could argue they rarely ever did……forcing the use of daylight bombing raids for precision bombing).   However, I did find myself stopping and thinking a little about the dambuster crews and how on earth they ever managed to fine the damns!    A single navigation error and you’d have almost no hope of recovering.

It equally made me realise just how affective “blackouts” must have been, lit up a village/town/city was very easy to spot get over and thus hit…….but if the entire place collectively turned their lights off, forget it, you’d be dead reckoning to target and that’d be that, one black patch looked like the next even from 2,500ft (from 10,000ft I’d guess it would have been just total blackness generally).

Airports:   Invisible at night…..

Approach an airport at night and amongst a sea of bright yellow/white light, if you’re careful and know roughly where to look you’ll see an occasional flashing green beacon – but look carefully because amongst all the other light there’s a real chance you won’t see it.

Fantastic, that’s the airport…….now where’s the runway?

This was the most striking feature of the whole flight, you may have seen approaches on to runways before, they’re very well lit welcoming rows of lights showing you the entire path to touch down.    This is all true, so long as you’re lined up with the runway!

From any other direction, all those lights on the runway are basically invisible, at 2-5nm you’ll see them, but by this point you’re almost on top of the runway (if you’re 2 miles out, you’ll be there in 60 seconds and due to your altitude it’ll be practically directly below the plane visually).

Land or Touch and Go?

My instructor gave me an option, this would likely be my last night flight for a while, so I was in no rush to end the lesson:   Touch and Go.

I flew the circuit, lined up and handed over the controls.

My instructor did a very good landing, back on with the power, got us up to 1000ft and then handed the controls back to me.    I got to do the circuit and again line it up, flaps down, around 200ft handing the controls back.

We had a massive tailwind on the approach, even with the flaps down and all the power off, we were still coming in at 90knots (65knots it the typical landing speed).

But my instructor did another stella job of touching down and then it was over to me again to taxi us home and try and find the parking bay.

Overall:  Go try it!

If you’ve got enough hours under you to be able to fly straight and level, climb/descend & turn.   I’d recommend you nag a flight instructor near you to let you go for an experience of flying at night.

I truly enjoyed this lesson, almost all the flying was done by me and it was really enjoyable to not have a lesson where the objective was to learn X, but to actually just go and put what I knew into practice and go sightseeing.

There is masses I still have to learn, but the occasional “just for fun” lesson is really worth doing.

……..speaking of which, I’m starting to miss the Extra 200, thinking I’d seriously like to be back up in the clubs Extra maybe in January.

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